Winemaking Heritage of Kumeu Wine Country
Kakose, Dobradosli….. there was a time when all the winemakers in the Kumeu area spoke in the accent of their forefathers. The wineries of Kumeu date back to the 1940’s when wine families of Croatian origin established winemaking in the area. These families are still living and working in the area today, making some of New Zealand’s most renowned wines.
Bill Spence “Our Heritage” Matua Valley
“I am a 3rd generation wine industry person, grape grower, winemaker. My grandfather was a Croatian immigrant, my father grew grapes and with my brother Ross and the Margan family we started Matua Valley Wines.
The area has orchards and farmers and they all have their own heritage, but ours is different: we can drink it! Our heritage is part of everybody’s life. Many years ago when the winemakers of New Zealand started to look into developing export markets and everyone thought we would never take off, a delegation of winemakers went to Wellington to seek funding to help with exporting. We succeeded thanks to a gentleman by the name of Bryan Mogridge, the GM of Montana. He said to the ministers “Look, when you are sitting down to a meal overseas there may be a bit of NZ meat on the table, there may be some NZ butter on the table and there may even be some fruit from NZ to finish the meal, BUT nothing tells you that it’s from NZ. They might say that was a nice piece of lamb but rarely would they say that’s a nice piece of New Zealand lamb. When you have a bottle of New Zealand wine on the table people will pick it up and most always you will have comment on the wine at least 5 times during the dinner as they look at the label and where it comes from. Gentlemen wine is a talking point.”
“This is what has promoted our product throughout the world to where exports are worth $600 million annually.”
Mark Nobilo – a brief Family history
“Kakose, Dobradosli. There was a time when all the winemakers in the Kumeu area spoke in the accent of their forefathers. Our family’s history started with Nikola and Zuva who lived next to the site of the original Konba (Cellar).
In 1939 the old man brought 14 acres of land at the current winery site. It was an old run down farm covered in blackberries. He started off with 9 cows and 200 chickens and planted his first grapes in 1943. He grew tomatoes and onions between the rows to supplement his income, which he sold to his Croatian friends who had restaurants in Auckland. If you tried to start a business on these humble beginnings today you won’t get far as the infrastructure has to be so great today.
Along this pathway and journey there were a lot of hurdles to overcome with language being just one of the many social difficulties. Wines were generally promoted by word of mouth and sales were restricted to a minimum of 2 gallons, plus all sales had to be recorded in a sales book which was regularly inspected by the police. Along the way, all these early winemakers like Dad had to be innovative in their own way. In 1956, Dad made an unfortified white table wine from some grapes on the property. It was a good wine, but his customers at the time preferred something with a kick which they got from fortified wines. Even though this white table wine was a good wine he couldn’t sell it, so he had to fortify it and sell it as white port.
In the late 1960’s there was a move in the industry towards classic varieties. A block of land next door was purchased to accommodate new plantings and the family entered into the first of several partnerships with London sprits giant, Gilbeys. As the company continued to grow, it reached a critical stage in 2000 and the family decided to sell and Nobilo wine group is now part of the largest wine company in the world: the US company Constellation.
When I think about all the expansion and growth in the industry and the new areas being planted I can’t forget the Kumeu soils and how good they are for growing great wines. In a good year they are unmatched for wines of longevity and complexity. You just don’t seem to get that the same with other regions. If you could transplant the soils of “Kumeu clays” to these newer regions I feel those wines would rise into yet another class”
Michael Brajkovich – Kumeu River Wines and Chairman of West Auckland Wine Growers
“While not here in Kumeu for as long as some of the other families, my family bought the property in 1944 from Stanko Jurakovich who had previously bought it from Martin Lovich making us the third Dalmatian family to occupy this land. As mentioned before, the 1940’s and 50’s were a different time in wine terms with fortified wines dominating the market. An example of the will to change the market by the local winemakers was in 1950 when my father Mate made an unfortified dry red which created interested and a market with return service men from Italy who had developed a taste for dry red wines while serving there. At this time I have memories of the cellar door shop on a Saturday morning at 9am a regular customer who would come in to buy his 2 flagons of dry sherry and leave with his roll your own cigarette hanging from the side of his mouth. Dad once asked “Do you know who that was?” I replied no, and he said it was a well known painter called Colin McCann. He‘d buy his two bottles of dry sherry and go and paint at Muriwai.
In 1979 it was a watershed in the wine industry. It was the year CER (Closer Economic Relations with Australia) started and the import barriers that had insulated the wine industry started to disappear. This gave the industry a much needed wake up call and spelt the beginning of the end for fortified wine production and the development of our modern varietal driven wine industry.
1980 we were able to purchase one of Corbans’ vineyards. They had two large holdings in the area: one in Taupaki and one in Kumeu. The Kumeu vineyard was purchased because it had a variety called Merlot which was largely unheard of at this stage in the industry. At one stage, of the 80 tonnes being crushed by the entire wine industry, Kumeu River crushed 50 tonnes! This is another example of the importance in this region in taking things forward.
When we first moved to Kumeu, like many people today Dad was a commuter, but unlike today commuting to work meant cycling to Henderson on Monday, staying at the Soljans house in the front room all week and cycling home on Friday. This is an example of the strong ties Kumeu still has with Henderson which I’m glad continues with the wineries today. Another aspect, which reflects the great heritage and culture of the region, is the cooperation between the wineries who are always willing to help each other out.”
A brief history of the other wineries in the region:
Selaks: The Selak family moved to Kumeu from Henderson in the 1960’s when their property was taken up with the northwestern motorway going through. Mate Selak and his sons Ivan and Michael pioneered Sparkling wine in New Zealand making the country’s first Méthode Traditionnelle called “Champelle”.
Brajkovich: The Brajkovich family has been in Kumeu since 1944. Mate Brajkovich was one of the great people who promoted the area and with his son’s wines from Kumeu, particularly Chardonnay which is one of the best in the country.
Papas: Were one of the first families to make wine in the Kumeu area in the 1930’s. David Papas still produces a small amount of wine and he and his wife Nellie are still involved in the industry working at Nobilo wine group.
Corbans: The Corban family were a great part of this area and had large properties with vineyards in the area growing numerous varieties. Their vineyards in Kumeu were some of the first to be harvested by machine. They greatly assisted the wine industry by generously providing land for trial work to assess new varieties, as the government didn’t have any land available at the time. This was a great contribution to the industry at the time and the Corbans are still remembered to this day.
Malcolm Abel: Malcolm believed in Pinot Noir and it’s place in the future of New Zealand’s wine industry, It is a shame he is not alive today to see what has happen to this variety today and how it has taken off.
Nobilo: Beginning with Nikola & Zuva, then the three boys Steve, Nick & Mark they produced industry benchmark quality red varietal wines from their Huapai Property then they made Müller Thurgau famous, and the industry grew with many of their innovations.
Fredatovich: Peter’s company Lincoln vineyards while based in Henderson had vineyards in Riverlea for many years producing excellent varietal wines.
Spence: Ross And Bill Spence started Matua wines who pioneered Sauvignon Blanc first grown at Matua road in Waimauku now is a very, very large part of the make up of the NZ wine industry accounting for 73% of all exported wines. Others names that were here at the start no longer making wines were Bebich, Jelas, Jurakovich, Vitasovich, Piskulich, Markovina, Boric, Bazzard. In the 1970s Kumeu was New Zealand’s largest vineyard area with many grape growers like Ron Jefferson, Doug & Chirs Faram, Toby Nicholls, Ken Wightman, Bruce levy, Ted Crumm, Watsons, Brian Heatherington, Bryan Hale and Fred Rakich all who contributed to this areas success and reputation.
Soljan: Tony Soljans’ winery in Kumeu moved out from Henderson 2002. Prior to this they had vineyard and the winery on Lincoln Road in Henderson. As Henderson began to become more urban, Tony moved the winery to its new home in Kumeu and built a modern winery, cafe and function centre. Sourcing grapes from regional vineyards, Soljans continues to flourish after Tony’s grandfather Bartul sailed from Croatia with his family and started the company back in 1937.
Anthony & Susan Ivicevich West Brook: Anthony and Susan moved to Kumeu from Henderson and have a long history in the industry and now continue to make this area continue to flouris.
Kerr Farm: Jaison & Wendy Kerr own a block located next to where Corbans vineyard used to be, and they make local wines from grapes grown in their Kumeu vineyard.
Coopers Creek: Started by Andrew Hendry and Randy Weaver, Coopers Creek have done exceptionally well with aromatics particularly Riesling. They consistently win prestigious awards and are particularly successful in the export market.
Waimarie Wines: started by Steve Nobilo’s sons Nick and Stephen who continue this family’s connection with the region.